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SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON
THE STYLE OF THE KUR'N
*
By The Rev. Alphonse Mingana, D.D.
www.muhammadanism.org
January 6, 2004
Syriac font: Serto Batnan

THE time has surely come to subject the text of the Kur'an to the same
criticism as that to which we subject the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Jewish Bible,
and the Greek of the Christian Scriptures. Apart from some stray comparative remarks
by a few eminent scholars, the only comprehensively critical work on the subject is
still that of Nldeke, printed in 1860. It is to be regretted that in the new edition of
Nldeke's classical work undertaken by Schwally and Bergstrsser which contains
most useful references to an astounding number of Arabic printed books and MSS.
the editors have not seen fit to multiply the critical and comparative remarks on the
sacred text itself. Much useful information can also be gathered from another classical
study of Nldeke: the Neue Beitrge.
A very recent study on the historical narratives of the Kur'an has lately been
written by J. Horovitz
1
. The section dealing with proper names (pp. 85-155) is full of
erudition, but I think that in some places he has built too much on the Muslim
tradition and on the so-called pre-Islamic or early Arabian poetry. Setting aside as
irrelevant the South Arabian and other inscriptions I believe that we have not a
single Arabic page on which we can lay our hands with safety and say that it is pre-
Islamic, and I hold with Margoliouth
2
that all the edifice of pre-Islamic poetry is
shaky and unstable, and that the Kur'an is the first genuine Arabic book that we
possess. It is in place here to repeat what I wrote on this subject in 1920:
3

"Before the seventh century we are not in a position to know how the Arabic
poetry was constituted. The numerous poetical

* Mingana, Alphonse, Syriac Influence on the Style of the Kur'n, Bulletin of The John Rylands
Library, Manchester: University Press, Longsmans, Green, & Co., London, England, Vol. 11, No. 1,
1927, p. 77-98.
1
Koranische Untersuchungen, 1926.
2
The Origins of Arabic Poetry in J.R.A.S., 1925. 415 - 449.
3
Odes and Psalms of Solomon, ii. 125.

77
78 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

compositions known as "early Arabian poetry," and represented chiefly by the well-
known Mufaddaliyat, Mu'allakat, Hamasah and Jamharah are enveloped in a thick
mist of prehistoricity and spuriousness, and in the present state of our knowledge we
may assert that till fuller light dawns they can hardly stand in the domain of a positive
study."
As we believe the Kur'an to be the first Arabic book
1
, its author had to contend
with immense difficulties. He had to adapt new words and new expressions to fresh
ideas, in a language that was not yet fixed by any grammar or lexicography. The risk
of not being understood did probably deter him from coining many new words. The
best policy was to use for his new idea of Islam the words which were understood by
his hearers and found in a language akin to his that had become an ecclesiastical and
religious language centuries before his birth and the adherents of which were
surrounding him in all directions in highly organised communities, bishoprics and
monasteries. This is the reason why the style of the Kur'an is so unlike that of any
other classical Arabic book.
In this respect the author of the Kur'an has certainly much merit and
originality, and his linguistic difficulties were much more formidable than those
experienced for instance by Paul and by the first Christian evangelists who had to
express their new ideas in the language of Homer. The language of Homer had a fine
literature behind it, the language of the Kur'an had not. As the first Christian writers
have left in their lucubrations stylistic peculiarities which clearly point to their
country of origin, which was not the old Athens but the Syrian Hellenistic Palestine,
so the author of the Kur'an has exhibited stylistic idiosyncrasies which stamp his work
as being somewhat different from the classical Arabic known to us from the eighth
century downwards; his style suffers from the disabilities that always characterise a
first attempt in a new literary language which is under the influence of an older and
more fixed literature. This older and more fixed literature is, in our judgment,
undoubtedly Syriac more than any other.
Among modern scholars who have treated of the question of the foreign words
found in the Kur'an mention should here be made of

1
The Kur'an itself testifies to this with emphasis in xlvi. 8 [46: 12]; lxviii 37; lii.41; lxii.2; xxxiv. 43
[34: 44]; xxxv.38 [35: 31]; xxxvii. 156 [37: 157].
SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 79

Fraenkel, De Vocabulis in ant. Arab. carm. et in Corano peregrinis, 1880, and
Dvorak, Ueber die Fremdwrter im Koran, in the publications of the Vienna
Academy, Bd. 109 1885. If I do not refer more often to these two scholars it is simply
because I am loath to multiply footnotes without great necessity; but it is hardly
necessary to state that I do not always consider all their conclusions as irrefragable;
this applies more specially to the second work. Some good information may also be
gathered here and there from A. Siddiki's Studien ber die Persischen Fremdwrter
im Klass. Arabisch, 1919.
So far as the Muslim authors are concerned the number of those who treated of
stray Kur'anic words of foreign origin is indeed considerable, and there is no need to
mention them here by name. Among those who attempted to collect such words in a
more or less systematic way we will refer to the short poetical pieces of Taj ud-Din b.
Subki and abul-Fadl b. Hajar. Both of them, however, have been easily eclipsed by
Jalil ad-Din Suyuti the best Kur'anic critic of Islam who devoted to the subject a
special chapter of his well-known Itkan
1
, and wrote on it a short and precise treatise
entitled Mutawakkili
2
. We must remark, however, that the very restricted knowledge
which all the Muslim authors had of the other Semitic languages besides Arabic often
renders their conclusions very unreliable and misleading, and the critic should use
great caution in handling their books, which at best are only good as historical
preambles to the subject under consideration.
I am convinced that a thorough study of the text of the Kur'an independently
of Muslim commentators would yield a great harvest of fresh information. The only
qualification needed is that the critic should be armed with a good knowledge of
Syriac, Hebrew, and Ethiopic. In my opinion, however, Syriac is much more useful
than Hebrew and Ethiopic as the former language seems to have a much more
pronounced influence on the style of the Kur'an. The only Hebrew textual influence I
was able to discover bore on the Biblical Hebraisms already found in the Syriac
Peshitta. We are also apt to exaggerate in our Kur'anic studies the legendary Biblical
element that emanates from Jewish folk-lore beliefs, and to overlook the fact

1
Pages 314-327 of the Calcutta edition of 1856.
2
Edited in 1924 by W. Y. Bell in the Nile Mission Press.
80 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

that these legends were already found in scores of apocryphal books circulating
among the members of the Syrian Churches of South Syria and Arabia. In this
connection we may state with some confidence that taking the number 100 as a unit of
the foreign influences on the style and terminology of the Kur'an Ethiopic would
represent about 5 per cent of the total, Hebrew about 10 per cent the Greco-Roman
languages about 10 per cent., Persian about 5 per cent, and Syriac (including Aramaic
and Palestinian Syriac) about 70 per cent.
In the following pages we propose to discuss very briefly a first list of words
bearing on some aspects of this Syriac influence on the linguistic peculiarities of the
Kur'an. The list ought to be carefully examined, because if its points are established
they will modify to a large extent our Kur'anic conclusions which are mainly derived
from Muslim writers the best of whom flourished some two hundred years after the
events.
The Syriac influence on the phraseology of the Kur'an may be considered
under six distinct headings: (a) proper names, (b) religious terms, (c) common words,
(d) orthography, (e) construction of sentences, (f) foreign historical references.
For the sake of conciseness and in order to save our limited space we shall not
add any critical remarks to the words which to us seemed to be self-evident and clear
even to the non-expert eye
1
. We propose to deal with the logical conclusions to be
drawn from the present pages at the end of the second list of words which we will
publish in the near future.
So far as the etymology of the common words is concerned it is of course
always difficult to decide with tolerable certainty whether a given Arabic word used
in the Kur'an is derived directly from the Syriac, Hebrew, or Ethiopic languages or
not derived from any of them at all. There are thousands of concrete lexicographical
words that are identical in all the Semitic languages, and no responsible scholar will
ever contend that any of them is derived from this or that Semitic language. This
applies especially to primitive vocables such as "head" , "hand," etc, etc. Such words
belong to the common Semitic stock found in all the Semitic languages. For the words

1
We can, however, assure the benevolent reader that no Kur'anic word has been asserted as derived
from Syriac, Hebrew, Ethiopic, Greek, Latin or Persian except after deep thought and consideration.
SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 81

that are not primitive and common to all the Semitic languages but found in some of
them only, to the exclusion of others, I have found the following considerations
worthy of attention:
(a) With all words, whether concrete or abstract, we must consider 1st the
grammatical and lexicographical genius of this or that Semitic language and see how
the Kur'anic words fit in with it; and 2nd the nearest form presented by the Kur'anic
words as compared with the corresponding words found in this or that Semitic
language.
(b) With exclusively concrete words we must consider the history, and the
geography and topography of the land, of this or that Semitic people, and examine the
extent to which the Kur'anic words fall in harmony with them.
(c) With exclusively abstract words we must consider which of the Semitic
nations first acquired literary civilisation, and which of them by force of
circumstances or by its proximity to the Hijaz was more likely to exercise a direct
influence on its language in this or that special branch of literature.
For a general view of the mutual relations that bind all the Semitic languages
together the following works need no special recommendation from me: Wright's
Comprehensive Gram. of the Sem. Lang., Brockelmann's Grundriss, Zimmern's Verg.
Gram. d. Sem. Sprachen, and the well-known works of Nldeke on the subject.

I

Proper Names

The proper names of Biblical personages found in the Kur'an are used in their
Syriac form. Such names include those of Solomon, Pharaoh, Isaac, Ishmael, Israel,
Jacob, Noah, Zachariah, and Mary. The other Biblical names used in the Jewish
sacred Books have the same spelling in Syriac and in Hebrew. The following names
need some explanation.
SOLOMON and PHARAOH. The Hebrew names are and with
a final h and for Solomon with two vowels ; so the Arabic and (with a
final nn) of the Kur'an could only have emanated from the Syriac forms of the two
names ...s. and .s.. (The Ethiopic form of the last name has the vowel i under
the p.) The penultimate aliph of the modern pronunciation
82 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

Sulaimn is a later addition of the scribes. We must here remark that the penultimate
ww of the Syriac name is also missing in many ancient books, and the name appears
as ,.x. , in MSS. written before the time of Muhammad. See the Brit. Mus. Syr.
MS. Add., 14, 602 ff., 82
a
and 84
b
.
1
The MS itself is of the end of the sixth or at the
latest of the beginning of the seventh Christian century.
ISAAC. Here also the Arabic is without doubt derived from the Syriac
.. and not from the Hebrew or (with a yodh).
2

ISHMAEL and ISRAEL The same remark applies to Ishmael and Israel. Their
Kur'anic equivalents and (with or without hamzah) are exactly the Syriac
.s.. and .. or . . and not the Hebrew and For
references to some Arabic inscriptions bearing on the name "Ishmael," see Horovitz,
Koranische, p.92, and Hartmann's Arabische Frage, pp. 182, 252 sqq.
JACOB. To a certain extent the form of the name of Jacob is also more Syriac
than Hebrew: = as., but in Hebrew with a short patah for the ' and
without a long vowel. The name occurs five times only in the Hebrew Massoretic text
with the long vowel and a quiescent ' as in Arabic and Syriac, and it is very probable
that they represent a more modern pronunciation of the name.
NOAH. The Hebrew is somewhat remote and the Arabic is exactly the
Syriac and the Ethiopic . .
ZACHARIAH. Here also the Arabic is the Syriac with an alaph
and not its Hebrew form with a h, or the Ethiopic Zakarias (taken from the Greek).
MARY. Note the difference in the first vowel of the word; Arabic and Syriac
Mar but the Massoretic text Mir. It should be observed, however, that according to the
Massorah to the Targum of Onkelos 84b
3
on Exod. xv 20, Maryam was also the
Targumic pronunciation. In Ethiopic both syllables are long; Mrym.
There is not a single Biblical name with an exclusively Hebrew

1
Pp. 709 and 714 in Wright's catalogue. On the gods Shalman and Solomon see Clay, The Empire
of Amorites, pp. 91, 156, and Meyer, Die Israeliten, p. 295.
2
See Fraenkel, Z.A., xv., 394.
3
Edit. Berliner, 1875.
SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 83

pronunciation in the whole of the Kur'an. So far as the names Ishmael, Israel and
Isaac are concerned we may remark that their deviation from the Hebrew
pronunciation is all the more remarkable because in them the author (or the editor of
the Kur'an) is running counter to the genius of the Arabic and Hebrew languages to
follow that of Syriac. It is well known that the letter of the 3rd pers. sing. of the aorist
is both in Hebrew and Arabic a ydh which in Hebrew precedes the above proper
name; and it would have been much more natural that their Arabic form should have
been for instance Yasma'il, and Yashak with a y' than 'Isml and 'Ishk with an
aliph, forms which have been used by the Syrians in order to retain as much as
possible the original pronunciation of the Hebrews, inasmuch as the letter of the 3rd
per. sing. of the aorist is in their language a nm and not a yodh as in Arabic and
Hebrew.
Another very remarkable fact emerging from all the above words is their
pronunciation. I am at present engaged in the study of the early history of Christianity
in Arabia as a sequel to my Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia, and Early
Spread of Christianity in India, published in 1925 and 1926 respectively. From that
study it will be seen that the majority of the Christians round about Hijaz and South
Syria belonged to the Jacobite community and not to that of the Nestorians. This was
the state of affairs even in the middle of the ninth Christian century in which a well-
informed Muslim apologist, 'Ali b. Rabban at-Tabari, was able to write: "What
(Christians) are found among the Arabs except a sprinkling of Jacobites and
Melchites."
1

Now the pronunciation used in the Arabic proper names mentioned above is
that of the Nestorians and not that of the Jacobites. The latter say ishm'l, isrl and
Ishk etc., and not Ishm'l, Isr'il, and Ishk, as they appear in the Kur'an.
The Graeco-Roman world is seemingly represented by two names only: that of
the prophet Jonas who figures as ynus, and that of the prophet Elijah whose name is
written Ilys, and once as Ilysin (sic) for the sake of the rhyme (xxxvii. 130). It is
highly probable, however, that these two names were borne by Christian Syrians and
that they were taken direct from them; indeed many men of the Jacobite

1
Kitab ad-Din wad-Daulah, p. 157 of my translation.

84 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

Nestorian, Melchite, and Maronite Syrians had from the third Christian century names
either completely Greek or with a pronounced Greek termination only. The number of
such men literally amounts to thousands. As an illustration of the final sn we may
remark here that many Syrians were called Yohannis for Yohanna, John, Mattaeus for
Mattai, Matthew, Thomas for Thoma, Thomas etc.
That the view we have here exposed is the only right one is borne out by the
fact that in Palestinian Syriac the form of the two names is Ilys
1
and Ynus,
2
as in
the Kur'an. In Ethiopic both names appear also as Ilys and Ynus, but from the
Syriac vocable (dhu-n) nn, "(he of the) fish," by which the Kur'an names Jonah (xxi,
87), it is more probable to suppose that he got his name also from the Syrians.
By applying the Syriac method of proper names we will be able to throw light
on some strange forms of names used in the Kur'an. To express "John" the Kur'an of
our days has the strange form Yahya. I believe, with Margoliouth,
3
that the name is
almost certainly the Syriac Yohannan. In the early and undotted Kur'ans the word
stood as which could be read Yohanna, Yohannan, or Yahya, and the Muslim
kurr' who knew no other language besides Arabic adopted the erroneous form Yahya.
I am absolutely unable to agree with Lidzbarski
4
that this curious name is an old
Arabic one.
So far as the word 'sa (the name given to Jesus in the Kur'an) is concerned, it
was apparently in use before Muhammad, and it does not seem probable that it was
coined by him. A monastery in South Syria, near the territory of the Christian
Ghassanid Arabs, bore in A.D. 571 the name 'Isanyah, that is to say, "of the
followers of Jesus," i.e. of the Christians. See fol. 84
b
of the Brit. Mus. Syr. MS. Add.,
14, 602, which is of the end of the sixth, or at the latest of the beginning of the
seventh century.
5
The Mandean pronunciation 'Iso
6
is of no avail as the guttural ' has
in Mandaic the simple pronunciation of a hamzah. The Mandean pronunciation is
rather reminiscent of 'Iso,

1
Palestinian Syriac Lectionary, p. 289, (edit. Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson).
2
Ibid, p.24.
3
Moslem World, 1925, p.343.
4
Johannesbuch ii., 73: cf. also Nldeke in Z.A., xxx, 158 sq.
5
P. 714 in Wright's Catalogue.
6
Nldeke's Mand. Gram., xxix and 55; Lidzbarski. Mand. Liturgien, 191.
SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 85

as the name of Jesus was written in the Marcionite Gospel used by the Syrians.
1


II.

Religious Terms.

Almost all the religious terms found in the Kur'an are derived from Syriac In
this category we will include such terms as:
from l~- priest (lii., 29; lxix., 42).
from l.... the Christ (iii., 40 and passim). [2: 45]
from l...s Christian priest
2
(v., 85). [5: 82]
(in the sense of) last
judgment
from l.. (i., 3, etc) [1: 4]

from i.a scribes (lxxx, 115) [80: 15]


from r). parable


3
(in an evangelical sense;
frequently used).
from l.s,s salvation
3
(ii., 50 and passim) [2: 53]
from i.s error, infidelity (ii. 257 passim). [2: 256]

from l.-, perceptor,


3
doctor (iii., 73; v.48 and 68).
[3: 79; 5: 44, and 63]

from l.-,. sacrifice (iii. 179 and passim). [3: 183]


from i)... resurrection (frequently used).

from i.x. Kingdom of Heaven (vi. 75 and passim).


from i)._ the Garden i.e. Heaven (frequently


used).
from l-L. angel, frequently used in the sing. and
plural.

from .,
l..
the Spirit of Holiness (Holy Spirit) xvi,
104). [16: 104]
from l.a the spiritual soul (frequently used).

1
Mitchell's St. Ephraim's Prose Refutation of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan, vols. i-ii., 1912-21
(as in index), and see my study on same in J.R.A.S., 1922, p. 530.
2
It is in place here to remark that the Syriac word Kashshsh was used as a proper name by many
Ghassanid Arabs of South Syria. See "Mar Kashshh, the Arab," in Brit. Mus. Syr. MS. Add, 14, 458,
p.48, in Wright's Catalogue. The MS. was copied before the death of Muhammad.
3
Many worthless conjectures have been put forward concerning this word by Muslim
commentators who knew no other Semitic language besides Arabic.

86 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

from .a. to glorify God (xlviii., 9).


from i sign, verse (frequently used).

from i

~ (ancient Nestorian pronunciation Allaha) God. The pre-


Islamic word for deity seems to be represented by the form
Ilh.

from .x he prayed, and its derivative from ix, prayer.



from he fasted, and its derivative from , fast.
from l. he sinned, and its derivative from , sin.
from .a- he denied the faith.

from l.- sacrifice (xxxvii., 107).

from .x_ to reveal oneself (said of God), vii., 139. [7: 143]
from ... he glorified God, and all its derivatives.

from .,. he glorified God (ii., 28). [2: 30]

from l-. crime (iv., 2).

from l- blessed be! beatitude (xiii., 28). [13: 29]



This dependence of the Kur'an upon Syriac religious terms is also visible in
the theological expressions, such as light upon light (= light from light), of xxiv., 35
(where from ), and in all semi-Biblical quotations or inspirations, such as
the story of the camel and the eye of the needle (vii., 39) [7: 40], where like
in Matt. xix, 24, and the idea of God causing to die and to live (liii., 45) [53:
44] , where

and

, like and in 1 Sam. ii., 6, where the Hebrew is in


the second form.
The same applies to Biblical events and facts, such as

(vii., 130; xxix.,


13) [7: 133; 29: 14], flood, from and from , to crucify, as applied to
Christ (iv., 156) [4: 157]. As such we will also count

, manna, from
1
(ii., 54;
viii 160; xx., 82) [2: 57; 7: 160; 20: 80],

, quail, from (ibid.), tribes,


from

. Another category of verbal Syriacisms is to be found in the literally


translated Syriac words; as such we will

1
It could not have been taken from Hebrew because of its mention with Salwa. See Fraenkel, De
Vocabulis, p.24. With this scholar I am in perfect agreement concerning some other words in this
section.

SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 87

count the frequently used , Apostle, from , and, , Word (of God) from
(iv., 1691 et passim). [4: 171]
I believe that in the above list the words, the Syriac origin of which could be
denied, are very few. The list could be increased by scores of other words, but the
above vocables are sufficient for the purpose of this first list. The only Kur'anic
religious terms that betray Hebraic influence are the two technical terms of taurt
Torah, and Tabt, "ark"
1
(ii., 49; xx., 39) [2: 248; 20: 39]. The same may to some
extent be said of the late Aramaic , Jahannam, "hell," which lacks a mm in
classical Syriac. The word Mathni, in xv., 87 and xxxix., 24 [39: 23], is obscure, and
its connection with the technical word mishnah is quite possible but not certain. On
the other hand, habr, "doctor", is both Syriac and Hebrew, with a slight change in the
meaning.
The Jewish influence on the religious vocabulary of the Kur'an is indeed
negligible.
In spite of the close and intimate relations that existed between Hijaz and
Abyssinia, relations that were strengthened (if we are to believe the Muslim historians
on this subject) by the fact that the early Muslims took refuge with Najshi, the King
of Abyssinia, the only Ethiopic religious influence on the style of the Kur'an is in the
word hawriyn, "Apostles" It is also possible that the word suhuf "leaves, sheets,"
may have been inspired by the corresponding Ethiopic word.
Here also we must remark, as we did in the case of the Kur'anic proper names,
that the pronunciation of the above Syriac religious terms is that in use among the
Nestorians and not the Jacobites. The latter say furkn and not furkn, Kurbn and not
Kurbn, Kashsh and not Kashshsh (with a shaddah), etc.

III

Common Words

There are words in the Kur'an which are somewhat uncommon in Arabic but
quite common in Syriac. As such we will count:

1
The word Srah is of unknown origin, and its right etymology is in our judgment still obscure.

88 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

from (Kur'n), a technical Syriac word to mean


scriptural lesson, or reading.
1

from numbering (vi., 96; xviii., 38; lv., 4). [6: 96;
18: 40; 55: 5]

from faithful (v., 52; lix., 25). [5: 48; 59: 23]
from fish (xxi., 87).

from mountain (xx., 82 and passim). [20: 80]


from he defeated, destroyed (xxv., 41 and
passim). [ 25: 39]
from hater (cviii., 3; cf. also v., 3, 11). [108: 3; cf.
also, 5: 2, 8]

(in the sense of)


creation
from (xcviii, 5-6). [ 98: 6- 7]

from to cause to possess (liii., 49). [53: 48]

from grace (xix., 14). [19: 13]


(in the sense of)


metropolis
from (vi., 92, etc.).

abb, from ibba or abba, "fruit" (lxxx., 31).
misk, from mushk, "musk" (lxxxiii., 26). [The word is possibly of Persian origin, but it
passed into Syriac.]
makld, from keld, "key" (xxxix, 63; xlii., 10) [39: 63; 42: 12] . [The word is of
Persian origin, but it passed into the Kur'an through Syriac. The proof is in the
letter Kf]
istabrak, from istabarg, "silk brocade" (lxxvi., 21). [The word appears to be of
doubtful origin, but it passed into the Kur'an through Syriac.]
2


Many of the above words are wholly Syriac and no amount of lexicographical
and grammatical subtlety will, in our judgment, succeed in Arabicising nn, Tr, or
muhaimin, etc. I believe also with

1
There is not much doubt in my mind that the word Kur'an is imitated from the Syriac Kiryn. All
the Biblical lessons to be read in the Churches are called by the Syrians Kiryns. The Prophet called
simply his book by the word that was used to name the pericopes of the Revelation in the Christian
Churches of his day. We should also remember that in the oldest MSS. of the Kur'n the word is simply
written which may be, and has already been, read Kur'n or Kurn without hamzah. I suspect that
this reading of the word without hamzah is reminiscent of an earlier pronunciation Kuryn or Kiryn
(with a y') and that the hamzah pronunciation is a late reading adopted to make the word more Arabic
and in harmony with the root of the verb kara'a.
2
So Fraenkel, De vocabulis, 25, who refers to Lagarde's Gesammelte Abhandlungen, 13. So also
Siddiki, Studien, 8.

SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 89

Fraenkel (ibid., p. 250) that the word in vi., 25, etc., is the Syriac ,
"writing, archives, any written thing." The meaning of "legends, stories," given to the
word by the Muslim commentators, is arbitrary, a device to give a sense to a sentence
that they could not understand, and is not warranted either by the etymological
meaning of the root, or by its comparison with the other Semitic languages.
1

Another Syriac word in the Kur'an is , compassionate, from , and
the recently discovered Book of the Himyarites
2
shows that the word was used in
Yaman before the time of the Prophet.
The Palestinian form of Syriac is represented in the Kur'an by the word
= , a just man and its derivatives. In Classical Syriac the first letter is a Zain, but
in Hebrew a Sdh.
The Graeco-Roman world is indirectly represented by the three following
words which refer to the State technicalities of currency, weight, and measure;


(iii, 36) [3: 75], denarius, (xi, 20), drachm, and

, Kintr, (iii., 68, etc.) [3:


75]. These are of no importance, and it is highly probable that dinar and Kintar have
passed into the Kur'an through the intermediary of the Syriac and . This
has actually taken place with

(vi., 7 and 91), which has almost


certainly passed into the Kur'an through the Syriac . The same may possibly
be said of

(xvi, 37; xxvi., 182) [17: 35; 26: 182] , balance, measure. The
spelling , however, is nearer to the Arabic form with a final sn than the
corresponding Syriac ; on the other hand what about the first Kf which is
decidedly Syriac? The word, however, represents a technical term of weight as used
in the Near and Middle East, and the editor of the Kur'an wrote it as it was
pronounced in his day probably by the Palestinian Syrians. Can the same be said of
sundus, from , red coloured cloth? (xviii., 30) ) [18: 31], etc.
We believe it to be quite possible that the word 'ibls, "the evil one," is derived
from diabolus, through a confusion of the initial dl with an aliph by an early kri, or
the first editor of the Kur'an This is not absolutely impossible with some ancient
forms of the above two letters. The connection of the word with the verb balasa is
artificial, and, if accepted, would throw us into a non-Arabic and an altogether

1
Cf. Nldeke-Schwally, Ges. d. Qor., i., 16, and especially the references given by Horovitz, Kor,
Unters., p.70, to the South Arabian inscriptions.
2
P.10 of the text (edit. A. Moberg).

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non-Semitic form of substantives which would baffle a critic. Still more remarkable is
the frequently used word Jinns, which is closely associated with the Latin genii;
and equally remarkable are the words pen, which is reminiscent of ,
calamus, and the word

(xxi., 104), which is undoubtedly taken from ,


sigillum, through the Syriac .x._. . The words used to express precious stones
such as marjan (lv., 22), and yakut (lv., 58), are cosmopolitan, and may have been
taken either from Syriac or from Greek, but more probably from Syriac.
As an instance of the curious relation which often exists between the Semitic
languages, we may remark that it is possible that saut (lxxxix., 12) [89: 13] if it can
be taken in the sense of "outpour, flood" has some connection with the Ethiopic
sta.
1
The Commentators, however, give to the word the sense of "lashes, strokes of a
whip" from the Syriac (Nestorian) Shauta. Perhaps the word may also be compared
with the Syriac Shubta (Nestorian pronunciation: Shta), "molten metal."
Another instance of the curious results that arise from a linguistic comparison
of the Semitic languages with one another is to be found in the root fataha (xxvi., 118;
xxxii., 28) which seems to require in the context the sense of "to judge between,
judgment"; a meaning that the word possesses in Ethiopic.
2

As in the case of religious terms the list of Arabic common words represented
in, or derived from, Syriac, could be increased literally by scores of others.
No other language is represented in the Kur'an. Here as in the two previous
categories the pronunciation of all the above Syriac words is Nestorian and not
Jacobite.
IV

ORTHOGRAPHY

There are numerous words in the Kur'an which by their orthography betray
Syriac influence. The following grammatical features will be sufficient for our
purpose.

1
Barth, Etymologische Studien, 14; Horovitz, Koranische, 13.
2
Cf. Horovitz, Koranische, 18; Nldeke-Schwally, Geschichte, i., 219.
SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 91

(a) life from , prayer, from etc.
(b) The elimination of the aliph of prolongation, answering to the Syriac
vowel Zakpha, ex. gr. daughters, for , under the influence of the Syriac
)

..-. All such plural words are written with out aliph in the ancient MSS. of the
Kur'an.
(c) The retention of the y in the defective verbs when joined to pronouns, ex.
gr.

(xvi, 122) [16:121], he chose him, for

( Syriac, .~.._ ). The y' as a


substitute for the aliph is written in all the ancient MSS. of the Kur'an in the cases
under consideration, and is undoubtedly under Syriac influence.
(d) We all know that in the oldest MSS. of the Kur'an thick dots take the place
of the short (and occasionally of the long) vowels. I believe that these dots are almost
certainly derived from the Syriac Massoretic puhhms or nkz which fill the same
purpose in difficult or ambiguous words.
V

CONSTRUCTION OF SENTENCES

(a)

There is a sentence in which the use of

denotes a well-known Syriac


expression by means of the corresponding - , an expression absolutely foreign to
the Arabic language.
Surah, xi, 121 [11: 120] says:

which
translated literally means: All we relate to thee from the Stories of the Apostles is to
confirm thy heart thereby. This kull betrays the Syriac kull used in phrases with the
above Kur'anic meaning and construction, ex. gr.
1
~x- .._ ). ..x l. i)

.x. .
To explain away the difficulty the Commentators resort to absolutely useless
compromises:
Tabari (Tafsir, xii., 87) says that the basriyn think that kull is in the
accusative because it is a masdar to nakussu, (a queer masdar!), but he prefers the
opinion that the word is an idfah, which is obviously inaccurate. The same thing may
be said of Zamakhshari's opinion (Kashshf, p.637) that the word nab' is understood
after kull. The same is asserted by Nisbri (Ghar'ib, xii., 90) and by Baidwi
(Anwr, i., 582), edit. Bulak, 1296, A.H.). That the resort to idfah is a worthless
compromise is borne out by

1
Breviarium Chaldaicum, i., 383.

92 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

the fact (a) that there is no second term of idfah, (b) that the aliph and tanwn of kull
render the existence of any idfah almost out of the question.

(b)

There is a sentence in which the demonstrative pronouns are used immediately
after the personal pronouns, in the same way as they are used in Syriac but not in
Arabic
Surah ii., 79 [2: 85] has:

. Then are you the very


persons who kill yourselves. The use of hawil is here very peculiar and denotes the
Syriac hlain. The use of demonstrative pronouns without the relative pronouns,
when followed by a verb the action of which they tend to corroborate, is Syriac and
not Arabic
Zamakhshari (Kashshf p. 87) has no good reason to offer for the anomaly.
Baidwi (Anwr, i., 95) evades the difficulty by giving an example of a demonstrative
pronoun (anta dhka), which is obviously irrelevant. Tabari (Tafsir, i., 314) quotes
Abu Ja'far, to the effect that a vocative y or such word as kaum are understood after
antum, and refers to some other devices which are really useless. Nisbri (Ghar'ib
i., p. 328) believes that antum is a "mubtada'," and "hawil' " its 'khabar," by inserting
between the two some such words as ba'da dhlika, and quotes also the Kfiyn to
the effect that the demonstrative pronoun has replaced here the relative in a way that
they cannot understand.

(c)

There is a sentence in which the word

, something, is under the influence


of the Syriac , something, used in a meaning not sanctioned by the genius of the
Arabic language.
Surah lx., 11 says:

. And if any of your wives


escape from you to the unbelievers. I believe that the word shai' applied to a human
being is not Arabic at all, and betrays the Syriac middaim which is applied to
reasonable beings (

).
This shai' is an unsurmountable difficulty to the commentators who resort in it
to worthless compromises. To avoid the difficulty ibn Mas'ud (in Zamakhshari's
Kashshf p. 1475) changed shai
SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 93

into ahad, Baidwi (Anwr, ii., 516) believes that it refers to the dowry of the wives
(shai'un min muhrihinna), which is obviously against the context. Tabari (xxviii.,
49) evades the difficulty and speaks only of the dowry. Nsbri (Ghar'ib, xxviii, 45)
says that shai' means here ahad, but like Baidwi makes also mention of the fact that
it may refer to the dowry of the wives, and he finally registers the opinion of some
linguists that shai' is here used for "emphasis" or "derision". This uncommon
interpretation is also found in Zamakhshari and Baidwi (in loc.).

(d)

There are in the Kur'an many sentences in which the Arabic word used does
not fit in with the meaning required by the context, but when compared with its Syriac
equivalent its right meaning becomes clear; ex. gr.,
Surah xlvii, 12, [48: 12] says

(But you believed


that the Apostle and the believers would not come back to their families, and this
appeared pleasing in your hearts), and you believed wrongly and you were ill advised
people.
The word br has been translated as meaning "worthless, rogue" or "an
undone people" which does not suit the context. Is it not the transliteration of the
Syriac br which means "ignorant, ill advised"? The same meaning seems also to be
more suitable in xxv. 19.
In Surah xxxviii, 2 [38: 3], occurs the sentence

. And they
cried but no time was it of escape. Let us admit frankly that this lt is a barbarous
anomaly in the Arabic language, and scores of pages have been written about it by
Muslim commentators and grammarians without advancing our knowledge one iota. I
believe that it is almost certainly the Syriac , there is not, there was not, a
contraction of . This is also the opinion of Suyuti (Mutawakkili, p.54) and of
some other Muslim writers.
1
In many ancient MSS. of the Kur'an the word is spelt
or , and the aliph of prolongation has been added or substituted for the y' by later
kurr.

1
On the expression haita la-ka, "come hither," in xii., 23, see Suyti', Mutawakkili, 54, and Itkn,
325. He believes the phrase to be Syriac, which is perfectly true so far as la-ka is concerned.

94 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

as they have done for thousands of other words with a medial y'. See above the mark
(c) in section "orthography" (p. 91).

VI

Foreign Historical References

(a)

In Surah xviii., 82 [83] sqq., there is an account of the well-known legend of
Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror first went westwards and found the
sun setting in a black muddy spring, and then he journeyed eastwards and discovered
that below the two mountains between which he was standing lived people who could
scarcely understand speech. They implored Alexander to set a rampart between them
and a wicked people called Yjj and Mjj. Yielding to their entreaties Alexander
erected a wall of pig iron across the opening between the two mountains, fused it into
a solid mass of metal, and strengthened it by pouring molten brass over the whole.
The Romance of Alexander is found in many languages; in Greek (that of
Pseudo-Callisthenes about A.D. 200); in Latin (that of Julius Valerius about A.D. 340
and of Leo the Archpresbyter, eleventh century); in Armenian (unknown date, but
probably from the Greek); in Syriac (written about the beginning of the seventh, but
known at the beginning of the sixth century); in Ethiopic (unknown date, but centuries
after the Arab invasion); in Coptic (about the ninth century). Later versions include
the Persian, the Turkish and, mirabile dictu, the Malay and the Siamese.
The best study of the Romance is to our knowledge that of Nldeke,
1
who
wrote after the publication of the Syriac text of the story by Budge.
2
From the works
of Jacob of Serug we know, however, that the story was well known in Syriac circles
prior to A.D. 520. Of all the above peoples to whom the Romance was known in one
form or another the only ones that could have influenced the Kur'an were the Syrians
and the Ethiopians; but since we have no evidence that the Ethiopians knew anything
of the story in the Prophet's life-

1
Beitrge zur Gesch. des Alexanderromans in the Vienna Academy's publications of 1890.
2
The History of Alexander the Great, 1889.

SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 95

time,
1
we have only the Syrians left from whom the Prophet, or the editor of the
Kur'an, could have derived their information. This may be corroborated by the
following considerations:
1. All the early versions write the word "Gog" only as Gog while the Kur'an
writes it as Agog
2
or more generally y-gg (with an aliph or with a y' and an aliph
at the beginning). In a poem by Jacob of Serug written towards the beginning of the
sixth Christian century on the Romance of Alexander and Gog and Magog, the word
constantly occurs with an initial alaph as A-gog.
3
This Syriac spelling has probably
influenced the Arabic form of the word as used in the Kur'an. There is even a verse in
the Syriac text (ibid., p. 378) in which the author seems to derive Agog from Agoga
= , "stream, aqueduct".
2. In the Greek of Pseudo-Callisthenes Alexander is a pagan king. In the
Kur'an Alexander becomes a pious man and a messenger of Allah. This idea could
have emanated only from Syrians, with whom, I do not know for what reason, the
Macedonian jahn-gush had become a messenger and a prophet of God. All the
poem of Jacob of Serug mentioned above is based on such an assumption.
4


(b)

In Surah xxii., 17, occurs the word

, Magians. I believe that this word is


from Syriac
5
and that the Prophet or the editor of the Kur'an had heard of
Magians only from Syrians and not from Greeks, Persians, or any other people,
because curiously enough the word is meant in the Kur'anic text to be in the plural
form from an hypothetical singular the nature of which we cannot guess with
certitude. Now in Syriac, contrary to Greek and Persian, the form

1
The Ethiopic story published by Budge in 1896 under the title of The Life and Exploits of
Alexander the Great is clearly a post-Islamic production and is undoubtedly under the influence of the
Kur'an and of late Muslim writers.
2
See examples in Nldeke's Geschichte des Qorans, p.270.
3
Edit of Budge in Zeitsch. f. Assyriologie, vi., pp.376, 382, 389, 391, 393, 398, 400-401 and 403.
4
About Alexander's wall see the Chronicle of Dionysius of Tellmahr p. 24 sq. (of the text, edit.
Chabot).
5
Cf. Nldeke, Persische Studien, ii., 37.
96 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

of the word does not change in its consonants when passing from singular into plural,
and the Prophet or the editor of the Kur'an used the term in the plural of Syriac and
not that of Arabic, as they heard it pronounced in their time. This difficulty was so
keenly felt by post-Kur'anic Muslim authors that from the plural form of the word as
used in the Kur'an they created (as if it was a gentilic and ethnic vocable) a singular
form, .
Etymologically the Syriac word itself is derived from the Persian mugh (in
Zend Moghu), "a fire-worshipper."

(c)

The Christians are called in the Kur'an which I take to be from the
Syriac . Indeed there is no other language besides Syriac in which the word
"Christians" is expressed by the word "nasra" or anything near it. Further, in many
ancient documents the Syriac word nasrya is applied exclusively to Christians
without any reference at all to the "Nazarenes". The Martyr, Simon bar Sabb'e, the
great Patriarch of the East, is in A.D. 341 called the "head of the Nasry"
1
i.e. of the
Christians. All Christians are called nasry in the life of the same saint written about
the end of the fourth century.
2
The same name is also applied to them in more than
one hagiographical piece emanating from writers whose country was situated within
the boundaries of the Sasanian Empire. St. Pethion was asked in A.D. 447: "Which
benefits have accrued to thee from thy connection with the Nasry"
3
i.e. Christians.
A Zoroastrian Persian General living before the Arab invasion sends a word to his
Byzantine Christian opponent to observe a certain feast "because of the Jews and
Nasry (i.e. Christians) that are found in my army."
4
There is no need to give more
examples, but we will allude to the fact that in the Romance of Julian the Apostate
alone Nasrya is used several times to express a Christian.
5

There is no doubt whatever that in the Persian Empire, and to some extent also
in the Roman Empire, the Christians were called

1

38
Pat. Syr., ii., 792, 818 and 867.
2
Ibid., ii,, 799. Cf. J. Horovitz, ibid., p. 145.
3
Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum (edit. Bedjan), ii., 576.
4
Land's Anecdota Syriaca, iii., 258.
5
See the index of Hoffmann's edition, Julianos der Abtruennige, p. xiv.

SYRIAC INFLUENCE ON STYLE OF KURN 97

by non-Christians nasry (the nasra of the Kur'an), and that the Prophet took the
word from the Syrians.
(d)

In xi., 46 [11: 44] mention is made of the fact that the ark of Noah stood on a
mountain called

. Few scholars will be inclined to deny the fact that this queer
word is the Syriac , the mountain on which according to the Peshitta Version
(Gen. viii, 4) and the Targum (contrary to all the other versions of the Bible which
call the mountain Ararat) the ark of Noah stood above water. The Prophet or the
editor of the Kur'an had heard, therefore, the story of Noah and his flood only from
Syrians. The reading of a ww for a ra' (the difference between the two letters is very
slight in Arabic script) may be ascribed to an early kri or to the editor of the Kur'an
himself. The pronunciation of the initial Kf as Gf is used even in our days by almost
all the Arabs of the desert, with whom every Kf is invariably a gf. No other
explanation of the word Jdi seems to me worth mentioning.

(e)

Frequent use is made in the Kur'an of the word which I take to be derived
from the Syriac pagan. This is also the opinion of some Muslim writers
themselves.
1
In its singular form the word is used as follows: in ii., 129 [2: 135]; iii.,
89 [3: 95]; vi.,79 and 162 [6: 79 and 161]; xvi., 121 and 124 [16: 120 and 123], all in
connection with Abraham being a hanf and not a mushrik; in iii., 60 [3: 67] in
connection with Abraham being neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor a mushrik, but a
hanf. In iv., 124 [4: 125] Abraham is a hanf. In x., 105 and xxx., 29 [30: 30] the
Prophet himself is ordered to be a hanf. In its plural form the word is used in xxii., 32
[22: 31], where the faithful are ordered to be hanfs but not mushriks, and in xcviii., 4
[98: 5], where they are ordered to be hanfs and pray and give alms.
The Syriac derivation of the word offers to my mind no difficulty at all. The
real difficulty lies in the fact that the word is used in a good sense in the Kur'an
wherein it is almost synonymous with

1
Mas'di's Tanbih, in Bibl. Georg. Arab. (edit. De Goeje), viji., 6, 90, 122, 136, cf Encyclopdia of
Islam, ii., 259-261.

98 THE JOHN RYLANDS LIBRARY

"Muslim." To this difficulty I can offer no decisive solution, but I will tentatively
propose the following considerations:
1. On the one hand the Prophet must have heard many Christians say of him
that since he was neither a Jew nor a Christian he was by necessity a hanfa; on the
other hand he must have also heard from them that Abraham was likewise a hanfa: a
perfectly true assertion. By its association with the great Patriarch Abraham, revered
and respected by both Christians and Jews, the word hanfa came to acquire with
Muhammad a good and praiseworthy meaning. This is the reason why the Prophet is
at some pains to emphasise the fact that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian,
but a hanfa, and wishes also his own religion to be hanftha.
2. To express "idolatry," and "idolater" the Kur'an uses some forms of the
root sharaka, which mean "to associate". Now this "association" is always meant an
association or a partnership of other beings with Allah, the true God, and never with
any pagan deity, and this in spite of the fact that to express "idols" the Kur'an knows
of authn (xxii., 31 [22: 30]; xxix, 16 and 24 [29: 17 and 25]), asnm (passim) and
tamthil (xxi, 53 [21: 52]; xxxiv., 12 [34: 13]). This bad meaning of the root sharaka
is naturally held to be as unworthy of Muhammad as it is of Abraham, and this is the
reason why so much stress is laid on the fact that Abraham was not a mushrik.
No solution of the difficulty offered by Muslim commentators or historians is
worth mentioning. All their stories concerning a class of hanfs and the good works of
the so-called tahannuf appear to me to be unhistorical and purposely invented to
explain the difficulty created by the Kur'anic verses under consideration.

(f)

In xxx., 10 [30: 2] the word Rm is used to express the Byzantines, the Greeks
of Constantinople, the "New Rome" ( ). Whatever our views may be as to
the linguistic peculiarities of the word we are not at liberty to deny that it is derived
from the Syriac Rmya. Indeed the Syrians went so far in their application of the
word to Byzantines that they often called simple "soldiers" Rmy
1
as if the only
soldiers they knew were Byzantine soldiers.

1
See the remark of Wright in Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite, p. 30.

s